Bennet, Crow Introduce Protect the West Act to Combat Intensifying Wildfires and Drought Across the American West

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  • Bennet, Crow Introduce Protect the West Act to Combat Intensifying Wildfires and Drought Across the American West

Legislation Would Invest $60 Billion in Our Forests To Reduce Wildfire Risk, Restore Watersheds, and Protect Communities 

Washington, D.C. — Today, Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry’s Subcommittee on Conservation, Climate, Forestry, and Natural Resources, and Colorado U.S. Representative Jason Crow introduced the Protect the West Act to make a $60 billion investment in our forests to reduce wildfire risk, restore our watersheds, and protect our communities. U.S. Senators John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) are cosponsors of the bill.

“In the West, our forests, grasslands, and watersheds are as important to our economy as the Lincoln Tunnel is to New York. But they are under threat – not only from climate change, but also consistent underinvestment from the federal government,” said Bennet. “As we face a 1,200 year megadrought and wildfire season that never seems to end, we need to break from the status quo and make a major investment in the restoration of our forests that matches the scale of the challenge. We have no time to waste.”

“As wildfires intensify, Colorado’s residents, economy, and fundamental way of life are in jeopardy. It’s time to act now to fight the worsening effects of climate change and protect our families and communities,” said Crow. “The Protect the West Act will bolster Colorado’s economy and protect our environment for generations to come.”

“Preserving Colorado’s forests and watersheds protects our water supplies and bolsters our booming outdoor recreation industry for generations to come—it’s a win-win. That’s why we need to invest in preventing wildfires and safeguarding our public lands and waterways,” said Hickenlooper.

“Major investment is urgently needed to protect Western forests and watersheds from increasingly dangerous wildfires and droughts,” said Wyden. “The Protect the West Act will ensure Congress funds much needed fire mitigation and restoration efforts — so communities stay safe and so that future generations can continue to enjoy Oregon’s beautiful natural treasures.”

America’s forests and public lands are essential infrastructure – supporting an $862 billion outdoor recreation economy and $164 billion agricultural economy. They are also vital to America’s waterways: the four major rivers that start in Colorado’s National Forests – the Colorado, Platte, Arkansas, and Rio Grande – collectively supply water to 19 states and parts of Mexico. Eighty percent of Coloradans rely on water that comes from National Forest land.

Despite the importance of our forests to our economy, watersheds, and way of life, Washington has failed to invest in them before wildfires start. The federal government currently spends thirty times more to recover from severe wildfires after they burn than to prevent wildfires in the first place The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimated that U.S. wildfires cost $11.4 billion in 2021, including the Marshall Fire in Boulder County, Colorado that destroyed more than 1,000 homes and businesses and is Colorado’s most destructive wildfire on record. Over the last five years, the U.S. spent nearly $67 billion on wildfires, and in 2022 alone, over 7.5 million acres burned nationally.

Over the last two years, Washington has begun to recognize the investment that our forests need. As the chair of the subcommittee on Conservation, Climate, Forestry, and Natural Resources, Bennet secured $5.5 billion in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and $5 billion in the Inflation Reduction Act for our forests. But more must be done to protect the future of the American West as it faces a 1,200 year megadrought and an endless wildfire season. To that end, Bennet is proposing a major investment in the restoration of our forests, grasslands, and watersheds to protect the American West as we know it.

Specifically, the Protect the West Act would:

  • Establish an Outdoor Restoration & Watershed Fund to increase support for local efforts to restore forests and watersheds, reduce wildfire risk, clean up public lands, enhance wildlife habitat, remove invasive species, and expand outdoor access. The bill establishes an advisory council of local, industry, conservation, Tribal, and national experts to advise funding priorities, coordinate with existing regional efforts, and provide oversight.
  • Empower local leaders by making $20 billion directly available to state and local governments, Tribes, special districts, and nonprofits to support restoration, drought resilience, and fire mitigation projects. These funds would empower local leaders to bring diverse voices to the table to develop solutions.
  • Partner with states and Tribes to invest $40 billion to tackle the backlog of restoration, fire mitigation, and resilience projects across public, private, and Tribal lands.
  • Create or sustain over two million good-paying jobs, primarily in rural areas, to support existing industries like forest-product, agriculture, and outdoor recreation.
  • Save landowners and local governments money by investing in wildfire prevention and natural hazard mitigation on the front end, which is thirty times more cost-effective than recovering forests and watersheds after natural disasters have struck.

The bill is supported by: The National Wildlife Federation, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, National Association of State Foresters, The Freshwater Trust, American Forests, National Wild Turkey Federation, National Audubon Society, Family Farm Alliance, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Western Landowners Alliance, Western Resource Advocates, Trout Unlimited, and Conservation Legacy.

“The Protect the West Act is a trailblazing investment in Colorado’s natural resources and Colorado is proud to support its introduction in the US Senate. As Colorado experiences periodic drought and continued threats from devastating wildfires, there’s no better time to invest in Colorado’s forests, watersheds, and landscapes that drive economic activity across the west, employ thousands of Americans, and provide environmental and ecological benefits to our communities and wildlife,” said Dan Gibbs, Executive Director, Colorado State Department of Natural Resources.

“The National Association of State Foresters congratulates Senator Bennet for proposing this bold legislation. Without an increase in coordinated forest management, wildfires will continue to put our nation’s forests and communities at great risk. Constant and increased collaboration between federal and state agencies, non-government organizations, local communities, and private landowners – bolstered by a sustained and unprecedented federal investment – will make all the difference for our most treasured landscapes,” said Kacey KC, President of the National Association of State Foresters. 

The Protect the West Act would provide critical funding to expand forest restoration projects in Colorado and across the West. Investing in the maintenance of our forests will help Colorado mitigate the risk of wildfires and bolster our state’s outdoor recreation economy,” said John Swartout, Executive Director, Colorado Counties, Inc.

 “One of the greatest threats to our Tribal lands are the devastating wildfires caused by the extreme drought conditions in the western United States. Sen. Bennet’s Protect the West Act will provide much needed investment in conservation, restoration and wildfire mitigation. A key component of this legislation is Sen. Bennet’s recognition of the importance that Tribes have in land use and regulation, assuring that funds will be made available directly to Tribes for maintenance of our forests, watersheds and rangeland. Moreover, he assures that Tribes will have a seat at the table in determining the distribution of funds, ensuring that there will be a tribal representative working alongside our state and federal partners on the Restoration Fund Advisory Council. We thank Sen. Bennet for introduction of this important legislation and look forward to its swift passage in Congress,” said the Southern Ute Indian Tribe.

“I support the Senator’s Protect the West Act. This is a great first step in recognizing and acknowledging the problem that was created over 30 years ago. The lack of proactive management and the ‘hands-off’ approach is now clearly having devastating effects on our communities, forest health and sustainable watersheds. This bill addresses this problem, provides much needed funding, and hopefully is the beginning of a new era in resource management. Now it is time to get to work.” said Merrit Linke, Grand County Commissioner.

“The Protect the West Act is the culmination of a very long effort by Senator Bennet to improve watershed health. When he introduced this legislation, it was clear that he was listening to us when he visited Clear Creek County repeatedly early in the process. He put the pieces in place to craft legislation that will protect our forests and watershed, and we appreciate his collaboration,”said Randy Wheelock, Clear Creek County Commission, Chair.

“Recent wildfires in the heavily wooded mountains of Boulder County have made it abundantly clear that we need to increase the pace and scale of our efforts to improve forest health and restore burned ground. The Protect the West Act is vitally important to meeting this challenge. Putting the emphasis on cost-effective wildfire prevention and creating a workforce to get that work done is exactly what needs to be done to prevent catastrophic wildfires,” said Commissioner Claire Levy, Chair of the Boulder County Board of Commissioners. 

“The Colorado River District’s highest priority is to protect the water security of Western Colorado. Water security starts with our forests. Our largest source of water is the snowpack that develops in our forests above 9,000 feet in elevation, mostly on federal lands. Sen. Michael Bennet’s $60 billion Protect the West Act proposal is a direct water security initiative through the funding of proactive watershed protection actions. These actions would help prevent catastrophic fires and start restoration work where warming temperatures and fires have already done harm. It’s noteworthy that $20 billion will be available to fund projects generated at the state and local levels. We applaud Senator Bennet for advocating for important western priorities in the Senate,” said Andy Mueller, General Manager, Colorado River District.

“While the City of Glenwood Springs was fortunate enough to be saved from the flames of the Grizzly Creek Fire, Glenwood Canyon and our watersheds were deeply impacted. Even before the fire was significantly contained by the Incident Management Team, we knew our City would struggle with providing clean water to our residents for years to come. Being able to access the assistance available in the Protect the West Act to reduce fire risk and funding to increase restoration and resiliency would be lifesaving for my city and throughout the West,” said Jonathan Godes, Mayor of Glenwood Springs.

“As Western communities continue to face the threats and the impacts of the climate crisis, now is the time to pursue initiatives that will help us become more resilient. The Protect the West Act will provide critical resources to help Western states mitigate wildfire, restore forests, improve air and water quality, and advance equity, all while pumping billions of dollars into local economies and supporting millions of good-paying jobs; it’s a true win-win. We applaud Senator Bennet for his leadership and look forward to supporting this legislation to build a more resilient West,” said Jon Goldin-Dubois, President of Western Resource Advocates.

“The Protect the West Act recognizes that the future of our western landscapes and watersheds is one of national significance. The National Wild Turkey Federation supports these proactive solutions that bring increased focus and resources to improve watershed health and management of our forests, grasslands, and rangelands. It is through these efforts that we will all benefit and enjoy the universal values of clean and abundant water, healthy wildlife and habitats, robust recreational opportunities, and resilient communities,” said Kurt Dyroff, Co-CEO, National Wild Turkey Federation.

“Rangelands and watersheds are the backbone of our western communities, supporting our wildlife, culture, and economies. And yet their health has been ignored far too long, as we’ve seen with the devastating drought, wildfires and dramatic spread of invasive annual grasses. This bill is exactly what our nation needs right now – creation of meaningful jobs that result in lasting benefits for both small towns and urban centers. Like the Civilian Conservation Corps, which employed millions of Americans during the Great Depression, this bill presents real solutions to today’s challenges by helping us restore the West,” said Alison Holloran, Executive Director and Vice President, Audubon Rockies.

“I am in full support of the Protect the West Act as it builds upon my county’s many collaborative efforts to restore forests and watersheds, create wildfire resiliency landscapes, create jobs and take care of the values that make us all love where we live in Western Colorado. This bill also helps landowners do the vital mitigation work so we can stitch together wildfire mitigation actions that are truly encompassing of both private and public properties because, as we know, it doesn’t matter where the fire starts,” said Marsha Porter-Norton, La Plata County Commissioner.

“The United States has been blessed with abundant land and natural resources, but in our rise to prosperity and global leadership we have also spent heavily from this natural capital. The Protect the West Act represents a long overdue re-investment in the critical natural infrastructure that sustains us,” said Lesli Allison, Executive Director, Western Landowners Alliance.

“The dire and worsening conditions impacting our forests and watersheds require large-scale, rapid, coordinated action. This challenge calls for a massive investment, but also funding and contracting flexibilities, consolidation of currently fragmented efforts, and clear outcomes-based priorities. By packaging all these pieces together, the Protect the West Act gives us a chance to get the right work done a lot faster at a scale that matters. We hope others will join us in supporting this bill,” said Tim Wigington, VP Finance & Policy, The Freshwater Trust.

“It’s been three years since the devastating 2020 wildfire season in Colorado. The watersheds and communities impacted by these fires are still recovering and will be for years to come. As we continue to address the long-term post fire recovery needs while facing increased wildfire risk, it is clear that investing in our western watersheds and forests is a critical need. The Protect the West Act offers durable funding solutions to ensure that our watersheds and forests can continue to support healthy ecosystems, clean drinking water and thriving communities,” said Hally Strevey, Executive Director, Coalition for the Poudre River Watershed.

“For water users in the West, our watersheds are the most fundamental infrastructure that collects, stores and delivers water resources. As we navigate drought, megafires, and growing uncertainty, the Protect the West Act is welcome funding support for our local communities and landowners. We know that pre-fire hazard mitigation is expensive, but also critical to preventing the spread and damage of mega fires like those experienced in 2020. Further, I am pleased to see this legislation’s intentional investment in more coordinated partnerships between local landowners, local governments, and state and federal agencies for the protection of our natural resources and water supply,” said Sean Chambers, South Platte Basin Roundtable Chair and Utilities Director at City of Greeley.

“Congress must act immediately to support the Protect the West Act as we can no longer wait to invest in restoring and creating resilient forests and watersheds across the West,” said Dr. Julie Korb, Professor of Environmental Biology Fort Lewis College, certified Senior Fire Ecologist by the Association of Fire Ecology.

“The Protect the West Act would make investments in forests and watersheds that align with our mission to create career pathways for young men and women with outdoor jobs protecting waterways, communities and our outdoor economies from wildfire, drought and other natural disasters,” said Kevin Heiner, Director of Southwest Conservation Corps.

“The Protect the West Act provisions offer an important set of resources to land managers, stakeholders, and communities urgently seeking to increase the pace and scale of forest and watershed management. These provisions led by Senator Bennet emphasize local voices, incorporate the best available science into project planning, and stress the importance of collaborative efforts for successful cross-boundary, watershed, and forest management approaches. Grant opportunities outlined in these provisions will directly benefit knowledgeable partners committed to working effectively with agencies to improve the social, ecological, and economic wellbeing of our communities and landscapes,” said Dana Guinn, Director of Forest Programs, Mountain Studies Institute, and Partnership Coordinator, San Juan Headwaters Forest Health Partnership, 2-3-2.

“The Protect the West Act represents an opportunity for the type of proactive coordination at the local, state and federal levels that will be needed to combat the increasingly destructive effects of climate change on forests and watersheds. As the environmental impacts of climate change accelerate, new and innovative approaches will be necessary to meet the challenge. This legislation recognizes the vital role that leaders at the local and state level have to play in responding to that challenge. It empowers these on-the-ground experts to work collaboratively across boundaries to rehabilitate and enhance our natural infrastructure, while also providing funding to ensure those efforts are successful. A problem as complex as climate change requires similarly multifaceted and forward-thinking solutions, and this is the approach embraced by this legislation. Denver Water supports this legislation as it provides critical, strategic investments in forests and watersheds that will ensure the viability and quality of our drinking water supply for years to come,” said Jim Lochhead, CEO and Manager, Denver Water.

“As an organization working to expand the outdoor recreation industry and improve the quality of life in the Grand Valley, the Outdoor Recreation Coalition is deeply invested in conserving our public lands for economic and social benefits. The Protect the West Act will not only create jobs in our community, but will also invest in the infrastructure and management of the lands necessary for our ever-growing outdoor recreations and tourism industries,” said Sarah Shrader, President, Outdoor Recreation Coalition of the Grand Valley.

“Rural communities across the West depend on natural spaces for our outdoor recreation economy and our way of life. With the impacts of climate change posing an extreme threat, bold, collaborative action needs to be taken to protect this heritage and allow these communities to build resiliency. The Protect the West Act will strengthen rural economies by supporting millions of local jobs, restoring forests and watersheds, and improving infrastructure,” said Thaddeus Shrader, CEO, Bonsai Design.

“The Protect the West Act respects the importance of empowering local citizens and leaders that have an ability to bring diverse voices to the table. Planning and implementing projects from the ground up, while engaging the people with the most at stake, is how we make progress and build resilience in the West. Our communities need a reliable partner for the urgent effort of recovering and restoring the health and stability of the place where we live and work. I am reassured and grateful for this critical step forward,” said Russell George, lifetime citizen of Western Colorado, former Speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives, former Director Colorado Department of Natural Resources and Colorado Department of Transportation.

“Colorado communities derive extraordinary economic and social benefits from the ongoing health and beauty of our natural environment. Respecting this heritage, the Protect the West Act aims to strengthen our economy in diverse, collaborative, and sustainable ways that fit the particular context of our communities. We thank Senator Bennet for his leadership in supporting this legislation that supports the natural environment as well as the economy of local communities,” said Chris Romer, ACE, President & CEO, Vail Valley Partnership.

The bill text is available HERE. A summary of the bill is available HERE.